Imam Ghazali, the 11th century philosopher, earned the title Hujjat-ul Islam, meaning the proof of Islam. He is the most translated Islamic scholar in the Western world. Born in the Persian province of Tus, he arrived in Baghdad at the age of 35. Ghazali achieved both recognition and wealth as head of the prestigious Nizamiyya University in Baghdad. After a few years of teaching, he felt an overpowering need to understand religion at a deeper level and resigned from the university. In search for solitude and spirituality, Ghazali distributed his wealth and left for Damascus. He took two mule loads of books along with him. On the way, he encountered bandits who stole all his belongings. Ghazali tried to prevail upon the highway robbers not to take his books as they contained his ilm (knowledge). They did not listen to him, mocking, “What kind of knowledge do you have if it can be stolen.” This incident had a deep impact on Ghazali and he turned to seek the true knowledge of the heart as embodied by the way of the Sufis.
In his autobiography Ghazali wrote, “I knew the Sufi way cannot be traversed without doctrine and practice, their doctrine lies in overcoming the appetites of the flesh and getting rid of evil dispositions, so the heart may be cleared of all but God. The means of cleansing the heart is remembrance of God, the concentration of every thought upon him. I saw that in the Sufi way, knowledge of God is reached by experience, ecstasy and transformation. How great is the difference between knowing the causes, definition and conditions of drunkenness and getting drunk. I became convinced that Sufis are men of feelings and not words.”
On the theme of experiencing God, Ghazali further elaborated on the 99 names of Allah. He wrote how Allah’s attributes must be known by tasting the experience, and not just the word. So to know mercy we must be merciful, to know God’s justice we must be just. Just like if you tell someone what it is like to swim they will never truly know swimming until they have swam. Similarly, we will never know God until we have experienced what it is to be merciful, just and compassionate. After many years as a wandering ascetic, Ghazali returned to his home city of Tus where he taught till he died. His biggest contribution to Islamic thought is that he integrated the outer law of the Sharia with the inner knowledge of Sufism. He said, “Scientific knowledge is above faith but the mystic experience is above knowledge.”
On his inner transformation the mystic scholar wrote:
Once I had been a slave,
Lust was my master,
Lust then became my servant,
I was free.
Leaving the haunts of men,
I sought thy presence
Lonely, I found thee in